Republicans Sneak SE PA Drilling Ban into Budget Deal

11th hourAn eleventh hour deal was snuck into the Pennsylvania budget signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett late Saturday night. On Friday, an amendment was introduced to the budget that would establish a moratorium on drilling in southeastern Pennsylvania in the South Newark Basin, a small area which stretches from New Jersey through Bucks, Montgomery and Berks counties in PA.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently completed an evaluation of the South Newark Basin, which contains both shale and coal bed methane deposits, along with four other East Coast basins and issued a report showing how much natural gas each basin contains (a copy is embedded below). The report says the South Newark Basin contains a minimum of 363 billion cubic feet of natural gas deposits, and their best guess is it contains around 876 billion cubic feet. It’s much smaller than the Marcellus, but certainly nothing to sneeze at.

With all of the gas drilling in the rest of the state, and with new drilling laws now in place, why place a temporary moratorium that expires in 2018 on the southeast region of the state? That’s where politics rears its ugly head—and this time it’s the Republicans who are to blame.

Here’s the excuse offered:

The moratorium is needed so scientists and engineers can better study the gas deposits held deep below ground, lawmakers said Saturday.

"This legislation makes good on my promise that Act 13 was not intended to apply to Bucks County," State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-10, said in a statement. "My colleagues in Harrisburg never intended for the Marcellus Shale law to affect our region, and now that a newly discovered formation exists, they agree that a moratorium on drilling is appropriate to give us the same time to study and debate the issue for our local area."

McIlhinney worked with Republican state lawmakers from Bucks County, including Sen. Bob Mensch (R-24), Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R-143), Rep. Kathy Watson (R-144) and Rep. Paul Clymer (R-145), to draft the language of the moratorium.

It was passed as an amendment to the state’s fiscal code, in SB 1263.

"The recent report by USGS has shed a new light on the possible circumstances in Bucks and other southeast PA counties. We believe it is necessary, given this new information, that these counties must be given the opportunity to have a greater say about things happening in their own backyard," Mensch said in the joint statement. "Originally Act 13 was viewed as primarily an issue for the northern tier counties. This new information proves otherwise."(1)

The “region” referred to by Senators McIlhinney and Mensch is the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs. The southeastern area of PA, where there has been no unconventional gas drilling (no high volume fracking), is largely opposed to fracking and most residents (liberal Democrats) don’t want it in their back yard. Witness the recent efforts of the Marcellus Shale Coalition to reach out to people in that part of the state to answer their questions and concerns (see this MDN story).

Currently there is a de facto moratorium on drilling in southeastern PA because it comes under the jurisdiction of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), and they have not voted to allow high volume fracking. But the DRBC may soon decide to allow it, leaving Sen. McIlhinney and his compatriots with no political cover with their constituents. So they cooked up a faux excuse that this new basin needs to be “studied” before drilling is allowed.

Republican Senator and President Pro Tem of the PA Senate Joe Scarnati said this head scratcher:

Republicans rejected arguments that the change was inserted at the 11th hour to appease southeastern GOP lawmakers, instead defending it as a necessary pause for a different type of gas extraction.

"We did not want to affect shallow-gas drilling in the commonwealth through any Marcellus Shale process," said Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, who shepherded this year’s shale-drilling law. "Inadvertently, we caught some of the shallow-gas drilling in that region."

MDN is not quite sure what to make of that statement. Does it mean South Newark Basin deposits are shallow and not deep? The obvious implication being the closer to the surface the drilling, the more likely it would be to have fracking water leak into surface water supplies, something that simply does not happen at the depths of Marcellus and Utica Shale drilling. Try as we might, MDN is not able to get a definitive answer to the question of “how deep is the South Newark Basin” – at least not from the USGS. But we did find this reference from one of the attorneys who is handling the lawsuit against Act 13 zoning on behalf of seven PA townships:

"This is the same deep drilling" as the Marcellus, said Jordan Yeager, one of the attorneys in the legal challenge. "I would want to ask the folks who seem to agree that it needs more study here how they differentiate the risks from the risks in the other parts of the state."(2)

We also found a story about the recent “find” of gas in the South Newark Basin and what it may mean for Nockamixon Township, where one driller was hoping to sink a gas well in the South Newark Basin:

Turm Oil’s application to drill says the company hopes to bore a well 7,500 feet deep. [David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist at the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research] said drillers would need to use hydraulic fracturing techniques in order for wells to be viable in the Newark Basin.(3)

So Turm is planning to drill at a depth of 7,500 feet—the same or even deeper than some Marcellus wells. And a Penn State Marcellus hydrogeologist says you’ll have to use fracking to get the gas. Sure sounds like what it will take is what already happens in northeastern PA and western PA. What is there, exactly, that needs to be studied?

Democrats are rightly outraged at the hypocrisy:

Lawmakers from Western Pennsylvania who had opposed the shale-drilling law approved in February as offering too few protections, condemned it as a special carve-out for southeastern residents.

"Where was our study? Where was our six years?" asked Democratic Rep. Jesse White, who represents a portion of Washington County that hosts a significant amount of Marcellus Shale drilling. "What makes Bucks and Montgomery [counties] so special?"(4)

Make no mistake, Rep. White is anti-drilling, period. So MDN finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to agree with him on this issue.

(1) NorristownPatch (Jul 1, 2012) – Pa. Legislators Pass Moratorium on Gas Drilling in Montgomery and Surrounding Counties

(2) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Jun 29, 2012) – Late-added provision to state budget bills would temporarily prevent drilling in Bucks County

(3) Allentown (PA) The Morning Call (Jun 30, 2012) – Report: Nockamixon has wealth of natural gas

(4) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Jul 1, 2012) – Oil and gas drilling permits on hold for southeastern Pa.